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Theses Around the World

Four seniors describe their thesis work throughout the globe

On the Map, Off the Radar

While the thesis experience may very well be the bane of a senior’s existence until March, a thesis can also be an incredible opportunity to travel to a new place, research a unique question specific to one’s interests, and interview people with fascinating stories to tell. This past summer, while I was in Mozambique doing thesis research at a rural primary school, some of my classmates were scattered around the globe doing thesis research.

Tyler E. Logigian ’13, concentrating in social studies, was just a country away from me doing thesis research on public health policy in post-apartheid South Africa. “I'm looking into whether the activism that developed around South Africa's HIV/AIDS epidemic has created a political space that other health issues can use to engage with the government and affect policy changes: services, access, research funding.” Though only in South Africa for one month, Logigian was able to get all of his primary research done. “I found that my first interview participants helped tremendously in guiding my project, putting me into touch with useful contacts of theirs.”

Farther up the continent’s western coast, history and literature concentrator Sydney A. H. Sawyier ’13 was leafing through the Cameroonian national archives for her thesis. “Initially I intended to do a comparative study of women's involvement in independence-era political parties of Cameroon and Morocco,” Sawyier explains. Then she was forced to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. “Well, the national archives of Morocco—despite all previous communications—were closed for construction, and then I fell ill, so I completed no useful research in Morocco.” Cameroon also proved difficult in its own right. “Cameroon's national archives were an organizational disaster, not to mention split between two cities five hours away from one another by bus.”

During her time in Cameroon, Sawyier became interested in the influence and internal political dynamics of communism on the Union des Populations du Cameroun, the most active nationalist independent party in pre- and immediately post-independence Cameroon. Though she set out with different research questions in mind, she is now focusing on the relationship between the UPC and the French Communist party and the emergence of a broader worker consciousness in French West Africa.

Just north of Africa, social studies concentrator Ariella E. Rotenberg ’13 was conducting her thesis research in Israel, where she spent the previous seven months studying abroad. “Few people know that 20 percent of Israeli citizens are actually Arabs, most of whom consider themselves to be ethnically Palestinian.” Rotenberg explains. “This group of people are entitled to and receive Israeli citizenship because they are born inside the borders of the State of Israel.” She interviewed university students from this demographic across the country to learn more about the way they view the relationship between their Israeli citizenship and their Palestinian identity. Her findings? “Many of them expressed the feeling that they did not fully belong to either group: Palestinians or Israelis.” Interviewing university students like herself in another part of the world was Rotenberg’s favorite part of her thesis research. “I was inspired by the way students my age thought deeply and often about their conflicting identities.” She reflects, “I cannot help but feel lucky to have had the chance to listen to and understand a little bit about what these students face each and every day.”

Across the world in Brazil, environmental science and public policy concentrator Arturo A. Villanueva ’13 conducted quantitative research on water development in South America and Africa while also talking with small-scale farmers, government officials, and private companies. “I took Environmental Science and Public Policy 10 with Professor John Briscoe. That class totally revolutionized the way I think about our natural resources, particularly water,” he notes. Villanueva’s thesis will analyze various financial models that are used to finance large irrigation projects in order to determine which models have been successful and which have not.

Although writing a thesis isn’t for everyone, many who do decide to take it on reap many benefits. “I have the chance to dig into complex subject matter over an extended period of time and eventually produce a piece of originally-researched academic writing. That, for me, will be the perfect culmination of my Harvard undergraduate education,” Rotenberg states. Theses can also give students a better idea of what they want to do after college. As Logigian notes, “I think that writing my thesis this year will help me determine whether or not I'd like to go into academia, and also whether or not I'd like to continue studying South African civil society.”

Even though there will be lots of blood, sweat, and tears in the months leading up to the deadline, the experiences students have had conducting research in the field provide invaluable skills, contacts, and memories that will last long after their theses are turned in.

Meredith C. Baker ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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